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Once Again on the White Working Class

In my earlier post on "It's the White Working Class, Stupid", I argued that poor performance among white working class voters cost the Democrats the 2004 election. I cited the startling finding from the 2004 NEP exit poll that Democrats lost white working class voters by 23 points to buttress my case, a finding that has been widely-cited in subsequent discussions of Democrats' problems.

In that earlier post, I defined the white working class as whites without a four year college degree, a definition that Chris Bowers of MyDD has questioned in a recent post on that blog.

For the record, here is why I use an education-based definition of the white working class, as originally set forth in my book with Joel Rogers, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters:

It is this Great Divide [between the college-educated and non-college-educated] that defines the new white working class. On one side of the Great Divide, lacking a four-year college degree, are the vast majority—three-quarters--of white adults, who have not fared well over the last quarter-century. On the other side, are the quarter of white adults who have a four year degree or more and for whom the last 25 years have been a time of substantial economic progress.

Of course, these non-college educated whites are “not your father’s” white working class. Instead of blue collar work, this new white working class is more likely to be doing low-level white collar and service work. And instead of working in manufacturing, the new white working class is much more likely to work in an office with a computer or at similar service sector jobs. They are also likely to have more education; perhaps some years in college, maybe even an A.A. degree and those in the workforce are much more likely to be female. But, in economic terms, they are not so different from the white working class of previous generations....

Besides the very tangible reality of the Great Divide, there are other good reasons to define the white working class in this way. Education data is almost always collected with political surveys and the educational categories used are usually commensurate across surveys. Moreover, education data are typically collected on all survey respondents, not just those who currently hold a job, so it is possible to categorize all individuals in the survey.

Occupation data, on the other hand, though tapping more directly the traditional definition of working class, are frequently not collected on political surveys. And when it is, the categories used vary wildly and typically leave out those not holding a job, or even all those not holding a full-time job.

Income data are more commonly collected on political surveys. However, the data collected is usually categorical and these categories vary substantially across surveys. And then there is the problem of inflation, which makes comparison of categorical income data from different time periods very problematic.

For these reasons, I will stick with an education-based definition of the white working class for the time being. However, it's worth asking what Democratic performance in 2004 looks like when we add income to education for a more fine-grained consideration of white working class voting, as the exit poll data do permit (occupation, as mentioned above, cannot be looked at with exit poll data).

Here is what you find: those voters who seem to correspond most closely to one's intuitive sense of the heart of the white working class--that is, white voters who have a modest income and are non-college-educated--are precisely the voters among whom Democrats did most poorly.

For example, among non-college-educated whites with $30,000-$50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by 24 points (62-38); among college-educated whites at the same income level, Kerry actually managed at 49-49 tie. And among non-college-educated whites with $50,000-$75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking 41 points (70-29), while leading by only 5 points (52-47) among college-educated whites at the same income level.

Conclusion: the more voters looked like hardcore members of the white working class, the less likely they were to vote for Kerry in the 2004 election. That's a problem--a big problem--that Democrats have to take quite seriously.